Navy Yard staffer reflects on Black History Month
The concept of Black History Month is actually a telling one. It acknowledges that a there is a part of America’s story that is neglected for the remaining 11 but that for 28 days, we’ll get to the bottom of it with a list of heroic feats, flashes of genius and beautiful prose.
In actuality, the experience of Africans in this country lies at the core of its identity–the intensity of its aspirations, the cunning of its politics and the excruciating struggle toward its ideals. This raw center of America’s soul is so sensitive that the tendency to shield it is understandable.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was the nerve center of America’s defense efforts for hundreds of years. Since joining its staff, I’ve indulged in the enormity of what’s taken place here–the mammoth construction, technological advancements and worker triumphs. Still it’s the missing faces that intrigue me, the ones lost to segregation and the notion that they weren’t relevant. Black History Month is less about race than it is an opportunity to probe my country’s heart and bowels.
The first ship built here, the USS Ohio, was part of the Africa Squadron—a U.S. effort to stem the tide of Africans being shipped as tools for use around the world. On the Brooklyn Navy Yard Overview Tour, I learn that Kings County was New York’s largest slaveholder. I imagine these unsung Africans laboring on and around the Yard, blooming outward from its shadow to anchor prominent communities like Weeksville, Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant.